In a recent article “Fruits & Vegetables Are Trying to Kill You”, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author questions the effectiveness of antioxidant vitamin supplements. According to the article emerging scientific evidence challenges the decades-old assumptions about the dangers of free radicals. Apparently the right amounts of free radicals might improve our health. Heavy supplementation with antioxidants could potentially harm us. How does this work?


Free radicals can damage cells and break their genetic material (DNA). This causes cells to mutate and reproduce abnormally, creating a seed for disease. In the 1940th to 1970th degenerative disease associated with aging came on the radar of modern medicine. Degenerative diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, often showed evidence of “oxidative stress,” suggesting that free radicals spurred disease. The body naturally produces native antioxidants to counteract this oxidative stress. In tests where rats innate ability to manufacture these antioxidants was blocked lifespan decreased. Vitamins were strongly antioxidant in test tubes. It was deducted that aging could be slowed by neutralizing free radicals with antioxidant pills. A supplement industry now worth $23 billion yearly in the U.S. took root.


Given that our basic cell design is over 1 billion years old, some scientists asked why evolution had not solved the “problem” of oxidative stress by now. They concluded that free radicals and oxidative stress might have some benefits. … Scientists began finding that exercise and calorie restriction increased lifespan in animals. Both elevated free radicals. According to the oxidative stress model of aging, animals that exercised and fasted should have died younger. But they lived longer.


Michael Ristow (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) conducted experiments with volunteers exercising regularly for several weeks with half of the subjects taking antioxidant rich vitamin supplements before. The results showed that subjects who took the vitamins before exercising showed no benefit from their workout. Their muscles didn’t become stronger; insulin sensitivity, a measure of metabolic health, didn’t improve; and increases in native antioxidants, such as glutathione, didn’t occur.


It turned out that the production of free radicals through exercise conveyed a stress signal that boosted the production of an abundance of native antioxidants. Those antioxidants, amped up to protect against the oxidant threat of exercise, now also protected against other ambient oxidant dangers.


Ristow’s research showed that a little bit of the “right kind of stress” is healthy for your body. It stimulates native antioxidants while antioxidants consumed through supplements produce the exact opposite effect.


Recent scientific evidence also suggests that trace amounts of naturally occurring pesticides and anti-grazing compounds innate to plants have a strengthening effect on the human body. These compounds are slightly poisonous and help the plants survive by fending off their natural predators. You already know these substances as the hot flavors in spices, the mouth-puckering tannins in wines, or the stink of Brussels sprouts.


Research conducted by Mark Mattson, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, showed that plants exposed to the innate stressors of their natural environment are not only healthier than plants grown “stress-free”, they are also much healthier for humans to consume. The compounds produced by exposing plants to naturally occurring stressors not only make the plants more resilient/healthier, they also challenge the human body to stimulate native antioxidants thus promoting longevity. So apparently eating lots of fruits and vegetables is not completely cutting it anymore. Commercially mass-produced produce lacks these vital compounds because it’s grown in a stress-free environment. One more reason to support your friendly local farmer :)


Implicit in the research is a new indictment of the Western diet. Not only do highly refined foods present tremendous caloric excess, they lack these salutary signals from the plant world—“signals that challenge,” Mattson says. Those signals might otherwise condition our cells in a way that prevents disease.


One implication is that modern agriculture, which often prevents plant stress with pesticides and ample watering, produces fruits and vegetables with weak xenohormetic signals. “I buy stressed plants,” Sinclair says. “Organic is a good start. I choose plants with lots of color because they are producing these molecules.” Some argue that xenohormesis may explain, at least in part, why the Mediterranean diet is apparently so healthful. It contains plants such as olives, olive oil, and various nuts that come from hot, dry, stressful environments. Eating food from plants that have struggled to survive toughens us up as well.